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The Button Box – Independent on Sunday Review

Lynn Knight, The Button Box: Lifting the lid on Women’s Lives: ‘The past is all buttoned up’, book review

The reader can dip in and out at any point, but reading chronologically offers a sweeping look at how women’s clothing has developed

There was a time, it seems, when everyone’s grandma owned a button box with a glorious assortment of colours and shapes that dazzled many a child. Lynn Knight remembers her own gran’s precious button box, an old Quality Street tin, and being allowed to use the buttons as money in her pretend shop.

She takes inspiration from these treasure troves to explore the social history of women’s lives in a book of 28 chapters, each dealing with a specific type of button and explaining how and why it was used.

And Knight raids her own button box – which includes donations from her grandmother, Aunt Eva, and mother.

She begins by looking at jet buttons and their journey from Victorian mourning wear to glamorous evening gowns. Real jet, a form of fossilised wood that can be polished to a brilliant shine, is fragile and prone to damage. Most are actually pressed glass, which is cheaper and more durable but still bears a striking resemblance to the real thing. It is such little-known facts that make Knight’s book such a delight.

Linen buttons, “the lowliest button of all”, were cheap and had myriad uses from basic baby clothes to men’s working shirts. They also had one important quality; they could survive the mangle intact. Three pearl buttons, which graced a home-made dress that Knight’s mother wore after being adopted, lead to an examination of the hand-made clothes and tokens that women made for babies before giving them up for adoption. Knowing they would never see their child again, they poured a lifetime of love into a small memento.

The suffragettes used buttons and clothes to indicate their support for women’s votes, with the WSPU colours of purple, white and green becoming very popular and on sale in upmarket shops.

The Button Box: Lifting the lid on Women’s Lives, by Lynn Knight. Chatto & Windus £15.99

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Viral by Helen FitzGerald – Independent on Sunday Review

Helen FitzGerald, Viral: ‘Humiliation, guilt, and a mother’s fearsome revenge’, book review

FitzGerald’s depiction of teens on a drink and drugs-fuelled holiday in a notorious party town feels unnervingly close to the mark

Helen FitzGerald’s eleventh novel opens with a killer sentence – not suitable for a family newspaper – that sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is a forensic exploration of a family mired in a modern crisis. When one family member goes off the rails, there are unexpected repercussions for the rest.

Teenager Su, adopted from South Korea as a baby, lives in Scotland with her snarky sister Leah, her musician father Bernard, and her mother Ruth, who is a judge in the Scottish court system.

Leah is only allowed to go on holiday to Magaluf if she takes sensible, hard-working Su with her.  Su reluctantly goes along and submits to Leah’s efforts to turn her into a party girl in the hope it will bring them close again. Things don’t go to plan and Su, drunk and possibly drugged, performs a sex act on several young men in a night club.

To make things worse, someone has filmed it and posted it to the web where it goes viral. Leah and her friends go home and Su, humiliated and feeling cast adrift, decides that finding her birth mother is the answer to her problems.

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Little Aunt Crane, Independent on Sunday

Geling Yan, Little Aunt Crane: Survival amid China’s crisis, book review

Geling Yan explores a period of Chinese/Japanese history which is little-known in the West

Geling Yan is an award-winning author and screenwriter in her Chinese homeland, with several of her works being adapted for the screen. In this novel, she explores a period of Chinese/Japanese history which is little-known in the West; the fate of the Japanese who had been encouraged to colonise Manchuria prior to the Second World War.

At the end of that war, Japanese villagers in Manchuria find themselves facing the advancing Chinese army alone. Some immediately flee back to Japan, but others left behind commit mass suicide rather than become captives. Sixteen-year-old Tatsuru chooses life over honour, but her freedom is short-lived as she is captured by people traffickers and sold to the Zhang family. She becomes Duohe, bought to give birth secretly to the children that only-son, Zhang Jian and his wife Xiaohuan, are unable to have themselves.

Yan sets the scene well; the Japanese villagers’ fear is palpable as they hear the Chinese army approach. Their docile acceptance of an honourable death is a chilling demonstration of their fear of reprisals and loss of face. Tatsuru’s brave march through hostile China, as she tries to stay ahead of the army, imbues her with a quiet strength and stoicism. Those who cannot keep up with the group are either left behind or killed, even babies and children. Tatsuru does her best to save those she can before being captured, put in a sack and sold like a bag of rice.

Her relationships with Zhang Jian and his wife are complex and shifting, her fertility both a blessing and a curse for Xiaohuan. She provides the couple with their longed for children but the price each pays for this unusual arrangement cannot be underestimated. At first, Zhang Jian is uncomfortable compelling Tatsuru to have sex with him, silent tears her only reproach. Later, he is torn between gratitude to Tatsuru for giving him his children and his love for his fiery but increasingly distant wife. Initially, Xioahuan finds the little Japanese woman unfathomable but slowly they reach an understanding and a strange kind of friendship is born. They become co-mothers of the children and formidable when they join forces in any disagreements with Zhang Jian.

Against the backdrop of a China being remade by Chairman Mao, Yan takes a great sweep of history and boils it down to an intensely personal story, while Tyldesley’s smooth translation retains the lyricism and keeps the novel  rooted in its time and place. At times lyrical and always deeply moving, Yan’s grand tale is one to savour.

 Little Aunt Crane, by Geling Yan (Trs by Esther Tyldesley). Harvill Secker,  £14.99

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Something to Hide by Deborah Moggach – Independent on Sunday Review

Something to Hide, by Deborah Moggach – book review: A genuine page-turner

The things we’ll do for secrets

Petra is a single sixtysomething living in Pimlico, London. Her children and grandchildren live in far flung corners of the world and she has taken up online dating to assuage her loneliness. Things look up when her old friend Jeremy reappears in her life and they begin a passionate affair, meeting every time he is in London on business. It is everything Petra has dreamed of with only one small wrinkle to spoil her happiness. Jeremy is her best friend Bev’s husband. Things get even more difficult when Bev calls from her African home and begs Petra to come and help her. So begins a complex dance as Petra attempts to be the best friend Bev so obviously needs while constantly fearing that her affair with Jeremy will be exposed. Thrown together, old jealousies and spats arise and Petra discovers that Bev has her own secrets to hide. Petra’s African experiences are vivid and eye-opening. Away from the slick cities full of Arab and Chinese businessmen, Petra finds that Africa is still poor and corruption is rife at every level of society. Moggach sends Petra on the voyage of a lifetime, where she makes astonishing discoveries about Bev, Jeremy, and herself.

Over in Texas, Lorrie dreams of moving her family to a better neighbourhood but with her husband in the military and two growing children, money is tight. When she accidentally destroys their chance to escape their run down home she embarks on an extraordinary project to put things right. At the same time, in China, Li Jing wonders why her stern businessman husband spends so much time in Africa and how she will get over the shame of her infertility. Things go from bad to worse when tests reveal that her husband is equally to blame for their lack of a child and Li Jing wonders if he will recover from the loss of face. He is impassive and tells her he has plans to sort everything out.

Skilfully, Moggach draws these disparate strands together, showing that even the most unlikely people can be connected in unexpected ways. In spite of their differences in age, lifestyle and geography, these women share a common characteristic; they are willing to betray their nearest and dearest in order to keep their secrets from being discovered. The women are all fully rounded characters who are easy to care for, particularly Petra whose warmth and humour, with some dark flourishes, is appealing. This is an absorbing read, with surprises and moments of tension that make it a genuine page-turner.

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The Missing and The Dead – Independent on Sunday Review

The Missing and the Dead by Stuart MacBride

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Stuart MacBride’s ninth Logan McRae novel sees the laconic police sergeant banished to the wilds of rural Aberdeenshire in what is termed a “development opportunity”. In fact, he has blotted his copy book one too many times in Aberdeen, and his senior officers have decided that a spell in the sticks will teach him a lesson. Shoplifters, vandals, and rounding up the occasional escaped farm animal make up the day-to-day routine of pastoral policing. Away from work, McRae keeps himself busy renovating the rundown Sergeant’s Hoose next to the police station, settling in for a long wait before he can return to the city beat. He survives on tinned lentil soup as he is paying for 24-hour care for his girlfriend, Samantha, who was grievously injured during one of his previous investigations. This slower pace gives MacBride room to explore McRae’s character in more depth, and he emerges as a less cynical man who starts to enjoy the collaborative nature of rural policing.

His quiet life is shattered when a little girl’s body is washed up on the shore and the Major Investigation Team from Aberdeen appears to take over the case. McRae is ordered not to interfere, but when his former DCI arrives, the gloriously un-PC Roberta Steel, she drags him into the investigation whether he likes it or not. DCI Steel is as blunt and hilarious as ever. She manipulates McRae with consummate skill, wheedling and tricking him into helping her earn brownie points with her boss by solving the murder. McRae sails close to the wind, having already been warned off, but his instincts are as sharp as ever and he uncovers some vital clues. The search for the child’s killer involves untangling a web of deceit which is dark and gripping. MacBride has obviously researched rural policing thoroughly, and the daily drudge feels authentic. One of MacBride’s strengths is the care he takes in giving the more minor characters rounded personalities. The banter and politics of the police service may have their own peculiarities, but anyone who has worked in a large company or an office will recognise the petty jealousies, cliques, and in-jokes that MacBride observes so well. He introduces some local words – the book is dedicated to the brave loons and quines of Grampian Police – which gives a strong sense of place. MacBride has written another riveting page-turner. Although seamed with his usual pitch-black humour it is not as macabre as some of McRae’s previous outings but is more emotional and affecting.

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Ridley Road by Jo Bloom – Independent on Sunday Review

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom, book review: An ambitious, but not wholly successful debut

Bloom has found an episode in London’s history that should be better known
SHIRLEY WHITESIDE Saturday 29 November 2014

A chance conversation led Jo Bloom to investigate the 62 Group, an anti-fascist Jewish organisation formed in Sixties London. Its adherents came together to fight the resurgence of fascism in Britain led, in the main, by Colin Jordan of the World Union of National Socialists.

A militant faction, the 62 Group set out to counter the propaganda disseminated by the fascists and take a stand against their violence and intimidation. Its members endeavoured to disrupt fascist meetings and even infiltrated the ranks of their opponents to discover their plans. Amazed that she knew nothing about the 62 Group, Bloom set her debut, a love story, against this dramatic backdrop.

It is summer, 1962, and Vivien Epstein, a 22-year-old hairdresser, leaves her Manchester home for London soon after the death of her father. She plans to make a new life for herself and find Jack Fox, the man she had fallen in love with in Manchester but who had suddenly returned to his London home.

Vivien finds a room to rent and gets a job in a Soho hair salon, quickly adjusting to the excitement of a city on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties. She searches for Jack Fox and eventually spots him during an anti-fascist demonstration in Trafalgar Square, only to wonder if he is still the man she fell in love with.

As lead characters Vivien and Jack lack depth. Bloom spends too much time telling the reader what her characters think and feel rather than letting their actions convey their state of mind. Her heroine’s ability to slip seamlessly into London life also feels glib – although the burgeoning jazz scene and coffee bars of early Sixties London are well drawn. The buzz around Soho and nearby Carnaby Street is palpable. But while Vivien’s transformation from a drab provincial into a stylish Londoner is plausible, the speed of her absorption into the working and social lives of the other hairdressers strikes a jarring note.

Bloom relates the history of the 62 Group – and its predecessor the 43 Group – and injects tension as she describes the organisation’s activities. Vivien’s astonishment at seeing fascism rise again, less than two decades after the end of the Second World War, is credible.

The policies proposed by people such as Colin Jordan, Oswald Mosley and the American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell are shocking. They take their hate message to the East End of London and the Ridley Road area, where the 62 Group engages with them. The running battles in the streets are frighteningly authentic, as is the despair of the Jewish community as swastikas are painted on the walls of synagogues.

Bloom has uncovered an episode in London’s history that deserves to be better known, and her research has thrown up some appalling events. She has been ambitious with her debut novel and, while it is not wholly successful, the subject matter alone makes for a thought-provoking read.

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The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland – Independent on Sunday Review

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland, book review: Maitland creates a wonderfully Gothic atmosphere

Shirley Whiteside

Sunday 17 August 2014

Karen Maitland is renowned for her painstakingly researched medieval novels and this story, set against the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, continues in that vein. She creates a wonderfully Gothic atmosphere in the city of Lincoln, with merchants reeling from the creeping loss of the wool trade and its inhabitants, rich and poor, struggling to survive in the stifling heat of summer. Above all this is a tale of a family and the love and loyalty, bitterness and retribution that ensues.

Robert of Bassingham is a successful wool merchant and lives with his family in a fine house in a prosperous part of Lincoln. Edith, his wife, is a rather sour woman but she has given him two sons, 12-year-old Adam and Jan, his father’s steward, who is being primed to inherit the business. One day, Robert is approached by Caitlin, a widow just arrived in Lincoln who asks him to advise her on investing her money. Robert soon becomes bewitched by Caitlin who is not a great beauty but has a mesmerising charm. Caitlin also has two children, her son Edward, and Leonia, her 13-year-old daughter who seems wise beyond her years. When Edith becomes ill Caitlin insists on nursing her regardless of the rumours that she is having an affair with Robert. Soon Robert finds himself seriously at odds with Jan, Caitlin’s relationship with Edward becomes curiously intimate, and young Adam and Leonia find common cause.

The hard life of Gunter, a boatman, and occasional interjections from an unidentified ghost, augment Maitland’s absorbing tale. Her major characters are pleasingly rounded and her minor characters are never flimsy. The period detail is fascinating but never overwhelms and Maitland includes a handy reference guide to the history of the period and explanations for the more unfamiliar words and phrases.

Maitland starts each chapter with a contemporaneous homily on how to ward off witches, engender good luck, or inspire love. Some are charming in their naivety, others are chilling in the fierce suspicion they demonstrate, particularly about women. They effectively add to the overall atmosphere of fearful superstition hanging over 14th-century society. The novel starts slowly but as the seemingly disparate strands are drawn together, it picks up pace. The story builds to an incendiary climax which devastates the Bassingham family. Some blame witchcraft for the family’s troubles but only the ghost, whose identity is finally revealed, seems to know the truth.

Maitland has produced another gripping tale, from a darker age, which has surprising resonances with the present.